Individuals can change the destiny of a nation
WASHINGTON -- When George Washington, in a spiffy uniform of buff and blue and sitting his horse with a grace uncommon even among Virginians vain about their horsemanship, arrived outside Boston in July 1775 to assume command of the American rebellion, he was aghast. When he got a gander at his troops, mostly New Englanders, his reaction was akin to the Duke of Wellington's assessment of his troops, many of them the sweepings of Britain's slums, during the Peninsular War: "I don't know what effect these men will have upon the enemy, but, by God, they terrify me."
You think today's red state/blue state antagonism is unprecedented? Washington thought New Englanders "exceeding dirty and nasty." He would not have disputed the British Gen. John Burgoyne's description of the Americans besieging Boston as "a rabble in arms." A rabble that consumed, by one sober estimate, a bottle of rum per man each day.
If, in the autumn of 1775, a council of Washington's officers had not restrained him from a highly risky amphibious attack on Boston across the shallow Back Bay, there might never have been a Declaration of Independence. If a young officer, Henry Knox, had not had the ingenuity to conceive, and the tenacity to execute, a plan for dragging captured mortars, some weighing a ton, and cannon, some weighing 21/2 tons, the 300 miles from Fort Ticonderoga on Lake Champlain to the Dorchester Heights overlooking Boston, the British might have fought, and perhaps won, rather than evacuating the city. If after the disastrous Battle of Brooklyn, the first great battle of the war, a fog had not allowed 9,000 of Washington's soldiers to escape across the East River, the war might have effectively ended less than two months after the Declaration.
'H'istory vs. 'h'istory
So says David McCullough in his new book "1776," a birthday card to his country on this Independence Day. "Ingratitude," he has said elsewhere, "is a shabby failing," and he writes to inspire gratitude for what a few good men, and one great one, did in the nation's Year One.
What British historian George Otto Trevelyan said of the December 1776 Battle of Trenton, which may have saved the Revolution, could be said of all the events -- defeats redeemed by skillful retreats, and a few victories -- of that year: "It may be doubted whether so small a number of men ever employed so short a space of time with greater and more lasting effects upon the history of the world."
What is history? The study of it -- and the making of it, meaning politics -- changed for the worse when, in the 19th century, history became History. When, that is, history stopped being the record of fascinating contingencies -- political, intellectual, social, economic -- that produced the present, and became instead a realm of necessity. The idea that History is a proper noun, denoting an autonomous process unfolding a predetermined future in accordance with laws mankind cannot amend, is called historicism. That doctrine discounts human agency, reducing even large historical figures to playthings of vast impersonal forces. McCullough knows better.
Solid, unpretentious narrative history like "1776" satisfies the healthy human thirst for a ripping good story. McCullough says E.M. Forster, the novelist, efficiently defined a story: If you are told that the king died and then the queen died, that is a sequence of events. If you are told that the king died and then the queen died of grief, that is a story that elicits empathy.
Using narrative history to refute historicism, McCullough's two themes in "1776" are that things could have turned out very differently, and that individuals of character can change the destinies of nations. There is a thirst for both themes in this country, which is in a less-than-festive frame of mind on this birthday. It is, therefore, serendipitous that "1776," with 1.35 million copies already in print, sits atop The New York Times best-seller list on Independence Day.
But, then, serendipity has often attended the Fourth of July. That day is the birthday of Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804), arguably the father of American literature. And of Stephen Foster (1826), arguably the father of American music. And -- saving the most luminous for last -- of the sainted Calvin Coolidge (1872), who oversaw a 45 percent increase in America's production of ice cream.
So, this Fourth read McCullough. Perhaps by the light of a sparkler.
Washington Post Writers Group